The Oxford Canal is amongst the earliest of cuts in the Canal Age. It was initially designed by James Brindley, succeeded by Samuel Simcock and Robert Whitworth after Brindley's untimely death in 1772 at the age of 56.
It was opened in sections between 1774 and 1790 with the purpose of bringing coal from the Coventry coalfields to Oxford and the River Thames. The canal formed part of Brindley's grand plan for a waterway 'cross' linking the rivers Thames, Mersey, Trent and Severn.
The Oxford Canal provided a direct link with London via the Thames, and for several years was hugely profitable. The arrival of the Grand Junction Canal, linking Braunston to London and later becoming the backbone of the Grand Union Canal, finally broke its stranglehold and effectively bypassed the southern half of the Oxford Canal.
Nonetheless, it brought more traffic to the northern section, which soon required upgrading. The Oxford Canal was originally built to the contour method favoured by Brindley, which not only meant that earthworks were minimised, but that the canal could call at many villages and wharves along the route. The drawback to this approach was lengthy transit times.
In the 1830s, Marc Brunel and William Cubitt made the most of developments in engineering to straighten Brindley's original line. Several of the resulting 'loops', where the new line bisected the old, can still be seen: some have found use as tranquil moorings. Other improvements included the duplication of locks at Hillmorton. In the 1830's the stretch between Napton and Braunston, where the canal shares its route with the modern-day Grand Union, was widened.
But the southern section between Napton and Oxford remains remarkably unspoilt and offers an evocative insight into canal life as it would have been two centuries ago. Trade began to seriously decline on the Oxford after World War II, but commerce continued well into the 1960s.
Tooley's Boatyard, in Banbury, is famous as the spot from where canal pioneer Tom Rolt set out on his 1930s journey around the waterways. His travels in Cressy were immortalised in the book Narrow Boat, which directly led to the formation of the Inland Waterways Association and the campaign to save the waterways. The boatyard has recently been reborn as the centrepiece of the Castle Quays shopping development.
The historic Oxford terminus of the canal is long lost, sold to Nuffield College and redeveloped as a public car park. However, support is growing for proposals to reinstate it as the heart of a new cultural quarter for the city.